Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Museum of Innocence. . .

I've just finished reading Orhan Pamuk's ambitious new novel The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely. This is his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and as the protagonist's endless recountings of lovelorn regrets intensifies alongside the meticulous descriptions of the common objects he is collecting, the narrative too insinuates itself layer by layer, chapter by chapter, into the reader's consciousness.

Set mostly in the 1970s, The Museum of Innocence is the story of Kemal, a wealthy young man, happily dating the spirited Sibel, who belongs to his social circle. However one day he meets Füsan, a shopgirl from a poor family, and falls madly in love. They have a passionate affair that lasts forty-four days, but when Kemal officially announces his engagement to Sibel and celebrates with a large party to which all of Istanbul's society is invited (including a young writer named Orhan Pamuk who will re-emerge later for a more important role), Füsan ends their relationship and disappears from his life. When Kemal finally finds her again, she has married someone else. Undaunted, he spends the next eight years platonically insinuating himself into her daily life just to be near her. And during every visit he pockets some object that not only reminds him of her, but that will help to physically recreate the space she has inhabited - a stubbed out cigarette, a china dog that sits on the television, even something as mundane as a salt shaker that she once touched. This obsessional longing for Füsan completely takes over Kemal's life; he is physically ill, his business suffers and he loses the respect of his friends and family.

As Pamuk said during his interview at the recent International Festival of Authors in Toronto, his novel is about love, but it, "doesn't put it on a pedestal. It doesn't treat love as a sweet pop song but as a more human tragic drama. I was trying to humanely understand what happens when one is deeply and seriously in love."

The novel is also a portrait of everyday Istanbul life and its mostly wealthy population caught between tradition and wanting to embrace more Western and modern values. In particular, those caught between a double standard both cultural and gender-based, are the women of the novel - beautiful, intelligent and passionate, but living in a society very much focused on marriage and one that still frowns on pre-marital sex - for females. While the novel focuses mostly on Kemal's experiences, the frustration of all the women in his life is expressed, even his mother who is angry at her son, not for his indiscretions but how badly and publicly he has handled them. Füsan's rage at her situation also becomes increasingly apparent; despite her seemingly demure outer appearance it's clear that to be adored means nothing to her if it is accompanied by a narcissistic, selfish unawareness. Readers will certainly question the ambiguities surrounding the end of this multi-year romance.

While I did find the first half of the novel fairly repetitive (while acknowledging this structural necessity to re-enforce Kemal's all-consuming passion), the pacing does pick up in the second half. Particularly interesting are the passages describing Kemal's travels to real and quirky museums around the world in search of curatorial inspiration for his own museum dedicated to Füsan. It's a fascinating meditation on obsessive collectors and the power of objects to evoke memories, resurrect the dead, and console the grieving. This is a long and thoughtful novel - fans of Pamuk's other work will appreciate his unique style and enjoy this one too. I also think you can recommend this to readers who like Kazuo Ishiguro (I'm thinking of his novel The Unconsoled) or even A.S. Byatt. It's definitely for Proust fans as well.

At his IFOA reading, Pamuk was interviewed by well-known journalist Carol Off who actually got heckled at one point by the audience for asking the author political questions instead of just sticking to the novel. I was very surprised by the audience reaction as she certainly did not ignore the novel which she had clearly read. And her questions about Pamuk's politics were completely valid in his case given his recent experiences being charged under the Turkish penal code for uttering comments deemed insulting to the country (about the thousands of deaths of Armenians and Kurds that had taken place in Turkey). The charges were later dropped after an international outpouring of support. Pamuk interestingly doesn't consider himself a political writer. "The novelist's job is to understand others," he said. "Who is not like me, who is not living in my situation? Trying to see the world in another's eyes is deeply political engagement. It's also about compassion."

He also talked about the very real museum he is planning to open in Istanbul in 2010 to showcase the ordinary and cultural life of the city. He bought the building ten years ago and has been working with artists to produce images of artifacts to be displayed along with the several hundreds - mentioned in the novel - that he has already collected. You can read more about this project here and see some of the artifacts here.

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